travels

Erichan in Japan.

It's the 80's. A sailor from the United States is newly stationed in Japan. He shows up at a Tokyo disco with a pocket dictionary where he meets her, an aspiring artist. Greetings are exchanged in simple syllables—Tarzan and Jane style. In English, he asks, "Wanna dance?" She is a bright senior in high school. He is tall, handsome, and foreign. They hardly speak each other's language, but what they know is enough. So they dance.

Their simple syllables bud, growing into professions of love. And seven years of dating, hundreds of handwritten letters, thousands of miles, and plenty of cultural differences later, they eventually stand together in a bilingual wedding service, saying I do before a crowd of mainly Japanese.

Then she, a brave girl, leaves everything familiar to follow her man to his country. He works on planes at night. She waits up for him, making his lunch at 2 am and playing Nintendo to pass time. They are patient, they are kind.

A few years later, their first baby is born. She has her daddy's nose, mommy's dimples, a dual citizenship, and a shared Japanese-English name. The child is me, Erika. But they, my patient and kind parents, mostly call me Erichan.

People often ask where I'm from, and I say Virginia. If the answer doesn't satisfy, I get what they really mean. No, what are you? Like where are your parents from? This, inevitably, leads me to tell my parents' love story which yes, resembles the movies.

We are a multiracial family. It's my beautiful normal.

There are challenges like facing cultural misunderstandings and racist remarks (or questions like above - what are you?), but I've always been happy to be half-Japanese and half-American. I sensed distinctions between my family and others early on, and I delighted in it. I imagined I was part of a secret club where you could speak bilingually, have different names for grandparents (Ojichan & Obachan), and celebrate holidays your friends didn't know about. Oh, and go to a country that lived in the future. As a kid who loved attention, I thought it was pretty neat.

Because my dad worked for the airlines when I was young, we could visit Japan almost yearly. I'm thankful for this, as it really fostered an appreciation for a world beyond the USA and helped grow a relationship with our Japanese family members. 

Some of my fondest memories took place as a kid experiencing Japan.

My mom's parents are a remarkable couple with their hearts and doors flung open to their grandchildren from across the ocean. I adore them. Ojichan would routinely drive us silly girls to the local 100 yen shop so we could pick out chopsticks, scented erasers, hard candies, and Jenglish stationery. He taught us card games and how to search for clams at the beach. He is incredibly generous, demonstrating his love through small acts of kindness. Obachan would nourish us with her home cooking and enormous hospitality. She cares deeply and serves willingly, supporting every endeavor of mine. One year, she took me to a ballet studio nearby so I could keep practicing. I've stepped into new adventures because of her.

Speaking of adventures, I attended my mom's elementary school for three summers back-to-back. I was homeschooled, so this was my only experience in a public education system. There were 40 students per class and one teacher. We walked ourselves to school in droves, but I later found out my dad followed at a distance. I thought I fit in seamlessly, but everyone reminded me I was the American and a guest of honor. 

A serious issue arose as I refused to use the squat toilets. Thankfully, this was soon resolved when I was led through cobwebs to the only western toilet in the building. It had no door, so students would volunteer to stand guard and give me semi-privacy. I laugh now at my high-maintenance. 

One afternoon, my 2nd grade class was taken outside to a sea of unicycles. We were given the opportunity to practice and ride everyday at recess. Unbeknownst to me, this was quite common in Japan. I loved unicycling so much I now own an ichirin-sha.

I visited shrines, gardens, festivals, and restaurants, but as a child, nothing really compared to going to Space World with my dad and sister. It was our tradition and no one else was allowed to join. We'd go when other kids were still in school and my favorite was getting to drive gigantic robot animals through the amusement park like we owned the place.

When we weren't tourists, my sister and I would get creative at Ojichan and Obachan's house. We played with dragonflies from the garden, pretended we were Japanese flight attendants, and performed dances for the family in the small tatami room. It was amazing. We discovered we could slide around the straw floors in our new toe socks while stealthily avoiding porcelain vases and shoji screen doors. (I once punched a hole straight through a screen.) And when there wasn't anything else to do, we ate azuki bean popsicles and caught up on Sazae-san, the longest-running animated TV series in the world. 

Those trips were entertaining and educational. Leaving Japan was never easy. I've said it before, but this country's beauty is striking and hospitality incomparable. The Japanese are truly among the most humble, diligent, and kind people I've met. My parents worked hard to ensure their marriage—and in turn their family—would be approved of, and I'm forever grateful they did. 

I cannot imagine life without my experiences and relationships in Japan.
It's a part of me. 

California, the unlikely gift.

I traveled to Southern California wearing a baggy white t-shirt with the words, "found at sea" printed on the front. A TSA agent asked if there were more like me where I came from. He motioned to the three word phrase. Bewildered, I said I didn't know and hurried along.

Minutes later, this shirt had me laughing. If you were to find me, you would only need to try the bookstore or notebook aisle in Target.

But by the water? Unlikely.

— 

I'd been wanting to visit friends in California for a year, but didn't think it could happen while unemployed. With no savings in place, a trip 2,577 miles away sounded fit for dreams, and dreams only. I penned it in my prayer journal anyway, coming back to it now and then.

God had abundantly provided tickets and spending money for mission trips in the past. I knew it was possible, yet I wondered if a getaway like this—to visit friends and have fun—would matter to Him as much.

You can imagine my shock when at the end of July, roundtrip tickets were generously purchased on my behalf. I was set to leave in eight weeks, with that much time available to gather up pennies, pray, and see what God might do.

Besides the overdraft fees charged by my bank, five weeks passed and nothing budged. I wondered again—did this matter? God? Should I stop asking? Deep down, there was this assurance:

No, don't stop. I like it when you ask.

While I watched babies and prayed and waited, He was making a way where there seemed to be none. It took awhile, but my gratitude and trust were deepened as He provided every last penny.

It came together, just in time.

California 2016

The trip was a gift.

I got to stay with precious friends who moved to Long Beach last fall. They are missionaries, making home in a new city while constantly pointing others to an eternal Home. The gospel is lived out daily in their family. I witnessed grace poured out, teachable hearts, and a love that is inclusive, championing, enduring. 

Inspiration was there, as I walked by houses and landmarks bearing stories of the past. Laughter was there, found in the friends I made over tacos and games. Refreshment was there, thanks to slow mornings and reminders of truth. It felt like a new city I, too, could make home.

Once in San Diego, I reunited with my best friend I've known all but six months of my life. We made sure to fill up on food healthy for the body and conversations necessary for the soul. We visited Balboa Park's botanical garden and a marvelous used bookstore. We crossed an item off our bucket list and spotted a celebrity on the beach.

But more than that, we heard each other. Tell me more about this; help me to understand. FaceTime was now face to face time—irreplaceable, treasured, and rare for our friendship. I witnessed my friend's resolve. There's this perseverance in her that exists all because of God's grace pouring over pain. Our sufferings have become the other's. But so has our celebration.

— 

A week later, my best friend saw me off as I boarded my red-eye to Florida. Nestled in that window seat, one thought filled my mind. The thought of Him. God, the kindest Father. 

Below me was blackness draped in city lights. California grew further and further away. 2,577 miles of distance again. When I landed the next morning, I realized I'd asked God for over two months if this trip mattered. He confirmed something better with a singular message:

Erika, YOU matter to me.

Every morning, there was an invitation to set my eyes above the pain felt nearby. To look to Him as my hope and strength. There was not a day riddled with pressure. Illness never ruled or told me who I was. My thoughts—they were unclouded and centered on Jesus. I was free from proving myself to friends and those they introduced to me.

It was a simple trip enriched with connection. Yes, with people. But most importantly, with God. No outing, relationship, or ministry east or west could be what the Father is to me. 

Sometimes, like the TSA agent to sea, we pine after fantasies. We go places in our heads and in planes, searching for relief, security, answers, or anything—often coming up empty.

I get it. I spent a year imagining up ideals. If treatment works, how would I then serve God? Whom might I meet? What job to secure? Where could I travel to?

I'd been looking elsewhere when God surprised me. He brought me to California, by the water, without a healed body or employment. My ideals were not in sight. Of all places, He chose the unlikely one to remind me of the strength in His power, sufficiency of His grace, and faithful love through His Son.

There is none like Him.

When you make Insta-friends.

Photo by Ariel Zadai

Three weeks ago, I returned from a trip so undeniably wonderful I still scramble to describe it accurately.

Different than any of my travels, this road trip helped shape my perspective of people, God's beauty, and the power of prayer in a whole new way. 

The goal of it was to help Allie (whom I had never met in real life) on her move from Michigan to Washington with the company of two other girls. She asked me to be a part of this in August only three days after I told God my latest dreams: visit the Pacific Northwest, go on a road trip, and somehow incorporate my favourite app, Instagram.

When I received Allie's message, I had to blink a few extra times. The opportunity was wild and too exciting to be true. During my decision making process, it was my parents' encouragement matched with a wave of peace that prodded me to say yes.  

While counting down the days until departure, the pain in my body quickly grew from tolerable to exasperating, leading me to resign from work.

All of this seemed unfair to me — the stubborn sickness, the unemployment, the seemingly crushed hopes, the hours spent in bed again. 

Once I felt nearly every negative feeling I could, (self-pity, anger, pride, you-get-the-point,) my emotions finally slammed into the "DEPLETE" button.

I texted some close friends asking for their prayers, fearing I would have to back out of the trip.

The day before this adventure out west began, I journaled what I believed God was speaking to me through 2 Corinthians 12:9 — "Erika, my loving-kindness toward you is more than enough. It is in your sickness, emptiness, and loneliness that my power can best be displayed."

I then wrote, "Because of His promise to me, I will joyfully press on and allow Him to do what He does best." As those words reluctantly bled themselves onto paper, I felt anything but surrendered or joyful. Worn out, I clutched to this promise I knew my heart needed to be convinced of and sluggishly packed my belongings.      

Less than 24 hours later, I was riding through Chicago traffic in a Jeep with three girls and a Uhaul. It was surreal for all of us to be together in the flesh, referring to each other personally and not by usernames.

As the first night of driving carried on, I sat in the back seat fumbling my fingers against the buttons of my coat in bouts of nervousness. Although it felt more than right to be there together, my fears due to past experiences would not decrease.

What if they don't like me?
What if I end up causing more of a burden than anything else?

I was afraid to let them down. I made no mention of this.

We stopped at gas stations and grocery stores, the first of more than I can now count. Music far out of my genre was blasted, heaps of goldfish were eaten, and our iPhones guided the way. Somewhere in between all of this and the far expanse that was the road, a conversation began unfurling.

A conversation that led to another. And then another. It all progressed so naturally and so suddenly until I soon realized, we were all kind of messy and in need of grace, forgiveness, and friends who would choose to love us regardless.

It was made blatantly obvious as we entered new cities, new homes for the night, and new friendship why we were in this together. 

The four of us girls, as vastly different as we were, just made sense.

Maybe it was because we knew we lacked something the other could help make up for. Maybe it was because others had walked out and we had prayed for someone who was okay with the current versions of us. Maybe it was because God knew we needed those "hey, me too..." moments, as hard as they may have been.

Whatever the real reason was, I believe it was no accident we chose to wander 2,000+ miles together, become friends in an Insta.

These girls pushed me to enjoy the bits of life I would typically skip over.

The limitations I put on myself and excuses I took up because of a sickness I allowed to become my identity were pushed to the side.

We sat on the sidewalk and ate the best BBQ in Kansas City. We stopped on the edge of the highway to play under the falling snow. We learned the Charleston after 9pm in Union Station. We climbed mountains and tiptoed neared bison. We snuggled the world's cutest cat in Portland and ate fancy flavored ice cream. We giggled endlessly over quirks. We took way too many photos and met some of the neatest people. We shared each other's toothpaste and carried each other's burdens.

Allie, Courtney, and Alex showed me a bigger picture of grace.

They mourned with me as I received news of my friend's passing. They let me sleep in the bed as they took up the floors. They drove through the night as I slept soundly. They prayed for me as I wept and celebrated as I climbed upward. They reminded me as friends of a lifetime do, that God can be seen in all things — the sunrise through rearview mirrors, the noble mountains chiseled to perfection, the rustling of auburn kissed leaves, and the promise of mercies made new.

None of us were the same than when the trip first began. I know I wasn't.

God's strength sustained me like never before, and I could not be more thankful for the opportunity He brought through Instagram. 

I don't know why it took me going across the country to see how I've lived consumed by my problems, but I'm glad it did.

People are worth getting to know, as risky and uncomfortable as it may first seem. No matter how much you may want to keep inside, it is always better to give, to listen, and to let your brokenness be used for something bigger than yourself. 

Because maybe, we all just need each other.

#allistrangemoveswest

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